Lawrence Otis Graham, 59, Dies; Explored Race and Class in Black America


Lawrence Otis Graham was born in Manhattan on Dec. 25, 1961, the son of Richard Graham, a real estate developer, and Betty (Walker) Graham, a social worker. His family soon moved to suburban Mount Vernon, just north of New York City. They moved further north, to White Plains, in 1967 — the same year, Mr. Graham later noted, that the film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which a white woman introduces her supposedly liberal parents to her new Black fiancé, played by Sidney Poitier, was released.

Mr. Graham’s parents had their own struggles with supposedly liberal white people: It took them months to find a home in White Plains, with many sellers refusing to work with them. When they finally found one, they had to pay a 25 percent premium, and even then several of their future neighbors banded together to try to pre-emptively buy the house instead.

When he was 10, Mr. Graham recalled, he was at a swimming pool with his brother and several white friends. But when he jumped in the water, his friends’ parents rushed to pull them out.

Over time, though, Mr. Graham found a way into white society through personal achievement, playing tennis in high school and writing a column with his mother for a local newspaper.

He wrote three books as an undergraduate at Princeton, all of them guidebooks to college, and three more, about getting into professional degree programs, as a student at Harvard Law School.

While at law school he met Pamela Thomas; they married in 1992 and later settled in Chappaqua, N.Y. The two were often admired as a power couple in the Black community: She was the first Black woman to make partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, wrote three mystery novels and today sits on a number of corporate boards.